Zombie polar bears and dragons, giant mind-reading gorillas, futuristic tardigrades flying around space, terrifying shadow monsters reigning parallel universes. With such high-concept, ambitious story elements flooding television, transforming words on a page with acting abilities alone is no longer enough to sustain and immerse modern audiences. This is why, despite the medium’s inherent time crunches and restrictive budgets, viewers have come to expect the same quality visual effects on TV as they do feature films. Fittingly, VFX houses and producers are more than happy to oblige.
It’s a trend that “Stranger Things” senior visual-effects supervisors Paul and Christina Graff, the duo that helped breathe life into the second-season shadow monster featured on the Netflix original, links to the progressive at-home technologies now available to everyday consumers.
“What determines the quality is resolution, and that’s the same in film and TV these days,” Paul Graff says, noting the 4.4 K-shot Duffer brothers series was a higher resolution than most films he’s worked on. “The quality is getting better with the new 4K sets; you can watch a movie in the same quality in your house as the theater.”
Two main parameters of concern remain time and budget, which often determines what’s physically possible in any given series despite emerging technologies. “Star Trek: Discovery” executive producer Alex Kurtzman knows this well through experience on both the televised and film versions of the franchise. The intense world-building that went into the CBS All-Access series was partially what caused premiere delays, while tricky VFX shots also make for a steep budgetary learning curve.
“We were under-budgeted on visual effects, and as we started to grow we realized we needed more money allocated to that,” he says. “The truth is there isn’t any one single house that could handle everything given the volume of CG we have, plus the turnaround itself. There’s a three-month window of turnaround time on work, and with so much work to do, sometimes different elements within a single shot will be divided between different houses that specialize in things like water or space or texture.”
That spread-the-wealth model is one pay cablers including HBO first molded with big-budget, VFX-heavy series such as “Game of Thrones.” While the first two installments of the Emmy-winner worked with single production houses, that evolved when current VFX producers Steve Kullback and Joe Bauer joined the team in year three. Heading into the final, eighth chapter, the show now utilizes at least 13 vendors in order to meet demands, which may include upward of 2,000 shots in its six-episode final season run — more than double the 800 or so from season three. In turn, that means more companies are now sharing the same software post-development, facilitating the creation of those aforementioned in-house specialties like water or fire.
“At a certain point it becomes too much work for one, two or even five vendors,” Bauer says. “Today there’s very little software that’s completely proprietary. The vendors need to have software packages that can speak to each other and commingle. At that point the software gets out into the world for everyone.”
“Once upon a time if you needed to design and execute a dragon you needed folks who had superior firepower and amazing programming chops,” Kullback adds. “Now there are software tools and expertise where folks have done these types of things before and it’s no longer a matter of inventing it from scratch.”
This type of expansion isn’t as possible on network television, where 22-episode orders are still the norm, though.
“Pay cable and streamers definitely have more leeway with time and prep,” says Armen Kevorkian, whose Encore Hollywood employs roughly 130 artists to create VFX for CW shows like “The Flash,” “Supergirl” and “DC’s Legends of Tomorrow.”
“Not to take away from what they do, but it’s a different animal,” he continues. “It’s hard to compare what we do on a weekly basis for three shows where every episode has a few big set pieces that we have to create with limited time. They have a lot more time to think those things through in fewer episodes; time is always our challenge.”
While emerging technologies now allow for increased speed around basic effects like rendering or creating a digital double, Kevorkian notes it comes down to the talent and passion of VFX artists to elevate and evolve what viewers see on-screen. And that’s a sentiment that’s shared across the board, whether on streaming, cable or network.
“It will be exciting to see where VFX goes in the coming years considering the momentum,” Bauer says. “It really just takes a weird show like ‘Game of Thrones’ that has the appetite, time and money. We’ve created our own expectations from season to season and we all want to get bigger every year. Some shows start big for initial viewership and shrink as they go on. We’re not just growing, we’re growing tremendously and it will be interesting to see when that happens again.”